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Light Therapy may Improve Mobility and Life Span in Flies, say Scientists

Bees are big money. They pollinate an estimated 15 billion dollars of U.S. produce a year

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Honey Bees. Pixabay

November 16, 2016: It can be hard to make sense of what is going on with bees around the world.

But we do know a few things: neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide used by commercial farmers in the United States, can make bees more susceptible to illness and infestation by parasites like the Varroa mite.

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We also know that in 2006, beekeepers began reporting a big problem: in some cases, 50 to 90 percent of the bees in their hives were just disappearing. These massive losses got the collective name Colony Collapse Disorder.

We also know that bees are big money. They pollinate an estimated 15 billion dollars of U.S. produce a year. That alone was enough to scare the heck out of farmers and grocers everywhere.

But, we also know, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that “reported cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years.” And domesticated bee hives seem to be on the comeback trail.

And just about a year ago, the EPA put out an enormous reseach paper that concluded that neonicotinoids can indeed pose a risk to the health of domesticated honeybees. The report went into great detail on the effects of the most common neonicotinoid, imidacloprid, and found that neonicotinoids don’t cause much harm when used on “corn, berries and tobacco,” but can be absorbed in great enough amounts to do damage when sprayed on cotton and citrus plants. The U.S. is coming to the game pretty late because Europe banned the use of imidacloprid in 2013.

New research sheds light on how the damage is done

When you lay out all this information on paper, what becomes clear is that a lot of what’s happening in the bee world is still a mystery, especially why exactly domesticated bees are on the comeback trail. But there is no question that neonicotinoids, particularly imidacloprid, can do a lot of damage to bees when enough of it gets into their systems, and their hives and honey.

That’s the focus of some new research from University College London. VOA spoke with Glen Jeffery, one of the authors of a paper being published today in PLoS One on neonicotinoids and bees. Jeffery’s work focused on how neonicotinoids affect the bees on a cellular level, specifically how the pesticides affect mitochondria. “Mitochondria are the batteries in our cells that make the energy they need in the form of ATP,” a molecule that transports the energy, he explained. “Mitochondrial decline is a key feature of the action of the insecticide, so ATP goes down when bees are exposed to it.”

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In other words, the pesticide pushes the bee’s cells into overdrive and they use up all their energy, and then just simply become immobile, unable to move or feed themselves and they die of starvation.

Seeing a solution in light

But science is a funny thing. Jeffery and his team were initially doing research on aging, not necessarily bees, so they knew that “…mitochondrial function can be improved with specific wavelengths of light” and light therapy was shown to improve mobility and life span in flies.

And here’s the great part: Jeffery says the idea of using a similar therapy on bees “occurred to me (a visual scientist) cycling home in the rain after reading about the mode of action of the insecticide and I thought that the light should help.”

So, he took the idea to the lab. “The researchers used four groups of bees from commercial hives, with more than 400 bees in each colony. Two groups were exposed to a neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, for ten days, with one group also being treated with light therapy over the same period.”

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Jeffery says he was “surprised by the positive impact.” The bees that were poisoned but got light therapy “had significantly better mobility and survival rates, living just as long and functioning just as well as bees that had not been poisoned,” while the bees that didn’t get light therapy showed less mobility and higher death rates.

The team also found that the light therapy — “15 minutes of near infrared light (670nm) twice daily” — didn’t affect the bees’ behavior because they can’t see the light. So now Jeffery says he and his team are “working to develop a small device that can be fitted into a commercial hive, which could be an economic solution to a problem with very widespread implications.”

Talk about seeing the light. (VOA)

Next Story

Coca Pesticide A Direct Threat To Bolivian Bees

On the lush steep slopes around Coroico, beekeeper Villca has no doubt about the immediate threat to his bees.

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bolivian bees
Nancy Carlo Estrada works with her bees outside of Coroico, Bolivia, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

High up in the Bolivian cloud forest, a woman tends to her bees, smoker in hand, working from hive to hive under a canopy of leaves to delicately gather panels of honeycomb. It’s a bucolic scene that experts say won’t last, for the bees are dying.

The culprit — as in so many other cases across the world — is pesticide. The difference in Bolivia is that pesticide use, along with the coca plantations it is being used to protect, is on the rise.

Environmentalists and beekeepers like Rene Villca say the bee population is being decimated by massive and intensive use of chemical pesticides to protect the region’s biggest cash crop.

Here in the idyllic Nor Yungas region north of the cloud-high capital La Paz, the pesticides are taking a toll on Villca’s hives.

“Of the 20 hives I have, 10 are producing normally and 10 are not.”

Bolivian Bees
Nancy Carlo Estrada works with her bees outside of Coroico, Bolivia, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

On another part of the mountain where Nancy Carlo Estrada tends to her bees, a canopy of protective netting around her head, Exalto Mamami wades through a waist-high coca plantation, pumping out liquid pesticide from a canister on his back, face covered with a long cloth against harmful blowback from the spray.

He is all too aware of the pesticide’s toxicity, but has other priorities.

“We use pesticides because the pests eat through the coca leaves and this affects our income. The plants can dry out and that way we as coca farmers lose out economically,” said Mamani.

The sale of coca leaves — the base component of cocaine — is legal in this part of Bolivia. They are sold openly for traditional use in the local towns. It is chewed, used for making teas, and in religious and cultural ceremonies.

According to the latest survey by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Bolivia has 24,500 hectares under coca cultivation, an increase of 7.0 percent in a year. The government is collaborating with the UNODC in alternate development programs but despite this, between 35 and 48 percent is destined for cocaine production.

Bolivian Bees
Nancy Carlo Estrada works with her bees outside of Coroico, Bolivia, Dec. 20, 2018. VOA

Coca cultivation expanding

On the steep slopes of the region’s valleys, the lush forest is pockmarked with small plots of coca arranged in terraces.

“The area of coca cultivation has expanded and the native forest has been reduced to alarming levels,” said Miguel Limachi, an entomologist at La Paz’s San Andres University.

Limachi says the expansion of coca cultivation has helped to destroy other plants that provide a natural defense against the coca-leaf pests, particularly the Tussock Moth.

In other parts of the Andes, the pale moth has been used as a biological weapon against coca cultivation.

“A monoculture is more at risk from pests or fungi because there is no longer native vegetation — there are no natural controllers,” Limachi explained. “And then more pesticides are used in higher concentrations.”

Bolivian Bees
It’s a bucolic scene that experts say won’t last, for the bees are dying.

Harmful organophosphates in the pesticides mean the bees — “a social insect and extremely organized,” according to Limachi — become disorganized, and less able to feed and care for larvae.

In recent years across the globe, bees have been mysteriously dying off from “colony collapse disorder” blamed party on pesticides, but also on mites, viruses and fungi.

The danger of increased pesticide use in the Bolivian highlands is that they “remain in the soil, on the surface of the plants and obviously contaminate all the organisms present — both the growers themselves, their children and their families, and the wildlife,” Limachi told AFP.

Pesticides are also used to protect other crops in the country such as coffee plantations and some tropical fruits.

‘Growers have no choice’

For Exalto Mamani, there is no other option but to use pesticides.

“Many of the coca growers are aware that we are affecting the environment with these chemicals, but we have no other alternative because the coca supports us and gives us the economy to support our family,” he said.

He says climate change has meant coca leaf pests are on the increase.

Limachi agrees that climate change has played a role in reducing bee populations.

“Very dry years and other years that have too much rain change the availability of flowers from which the bees use to feed the hives,” he said.

Other human factors also play a role, he said.

Also Read: Rescue Efforts For Wild Puerto Rican Parrot In Motion

“Electromagnetic pollution, the emission of cellular waves, microwaves, radios, television…all that can affect their communication and the operation of the hive because they interrupt processes such as food collection, care of the larvae or cleanliness of the colony,” said Limachi.

On the lush steep slopes around Coroico, beekeeper Villca has no doubt about the immediate threat to his bees.

“We hope that the coca producers realize the value of this golden insect,” he said. (VOA)